A Different Kind of Greatness | Daily Office Devotional 2021/8/12

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Mark 10:32-45

The history of the world often revolves around memorable stories of the mighty, of huge empires and their dictators, of successful nations and their movers and shakers, of horrific violence and glorious victory. They are stories of grandeur, dominance, violence, and triumph. In Singapore, we are often told that our success as a nation is due to strongman leaders who are not afraid to break a few eggs to make an omelette. As one venerable leader famously put it, “Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try.” As world history would tell us, power and might makes the world go round. However, that is also what makes Christianity and the gospel story at the heart of it so peculiar.

In the passage today, what James and John requested from Jesus was an assignment to the highest positions in the new kingdom that he would bring about. They believed that as the prophesied Messiah, Jesus would soon stir up an insurrection against their Roman overlords and their Jewish sympathisers, overthrow them, and establish the Kingdom of God in his name. Obviously, they had no clue what Jesus had been talking about earlier on (10.33-34). On the contrary, he had to suffer and die for the sake of the Kingdom of God before he would be glorified as its Messiah. When the other disciples heard of the two brothers’ request, they were angry at them for trying to jockey into high political positions behind their backs. Witnessing their altercation, Jesus knew their hearts were still captivated by the ways of the world, where being great is all about possessing power and might. No doubt that was what they had learnt from world history.

However, the Kingdom of God is not ruled by power and might. On the contrary, it is ruled by love, humility, lowliness, and servitude. Jesus, the Messiah of that Kingdom, demonstrated that himself when he gave himself over to slander, torture and death, abasing himself on the cross in obedience to his Father and for the sake of the world. It was after that that “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2.9). By his suffering and death, Jesus set the pattern which every one who wishes to enter his Kingdom must adhere to. Only those who know how to give up their delusions of grandeur and humble themselves to serve others will be considered great in his Kingdom.

Hence, the peculiarity of the Christian story. While the world extols power and might, this story that glorifies a lowly executed Galilean preacher at its centre has captured the hearts of people everywhere. For many of the nameless in history who have been crushed by the juggernaut of power and might, it has provided them with an alternative way of viewing themselves and the world. That the ones who are truly great are not their oppressors, but those who know how to stoop and serve. Their oppressors will be thrown down, while those who know to love and serve will be exalted. It is for this reason that Nietzsche vilified Christianity for having a “slave morality” which inverted the world’s understanding of greatness. Yet, this “slave morality” has perdured throughout two thousand years of human history, producing communities of hope everywhere where life is not governed by tooth and claw, where love endures despite the cruel cudgel of the mighty and powerful.

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